Two rare macaws on show at Bird Park

The Jurong Bird Park is home to two Spix's macaws, a species of parrot with blue feathers that has been announced to be extinct in the wild.
Mr Zaid Harithsah, a junior keeper at the Jurong Bird Park, feeding Spix's macaws Rio (far left) and Frieda. The Brazilian natives, both female, have been on display at its parrot paradise exhibit since last November. Both macaws are here on a 10-yea
Mr Zaid Harithsah, a junior keeper at the Jurong Bird Park, feeding Spix's macaws Rio (left) and Frieda. The Brazilian natives, both female, have been on display at its parrot paradise exhibit since last November. Both macaws are here on a 10-year loan.ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

Spix's macaw set to be listed as extinct in the wild, with estimates of only 60 to 80 birds in captivity

With its beautiful blue feathers on its wings and tail, it is no surprise the charming Spix's macaw inspired the 2011 animated film Rio and its 2014 sequel.

Sadly, this pretty parrot, also known as the little blue macaw, has seen its numbers tumble in recent years due to poaching and habitat destruction.

A recently published study by bird conservation group BirdLife International suggested the species should be re-classified as being extinct in the wild. Reports say there are an estimated 60 to 80 Spix's macaws in captivity.

Two of them, now among the rarest birds in the world, are in Singapore's Jurong Bird Park. The Brazilian natives, both female, have been on display at its parrot paradise exhibit since last November.

Frieda, 19, and Rio, nine, are here on a 10-year loan from the Al Wabra Wildlife Preservation in Qatar and the Association for the Conservation of Threatened Parrots (ACTP) in Germany.

Here, they are "conservation ambassadors", raising awareness about the threats of extinction, and the conservation programmes that aim to save them.

Dr Jessica Lee, 32, from Wildlife Reserves Singapore's conservation, research and veterinary services department, confirmed that the Spix's macaw is the only species in the Bird Park's collection that is set to be listed as extinct in the wild.

Mr Zaid Harithsah, 27, a junior keeper who is part of the team looking after the parrot paradise exhibit, added: "It is very saddening news to see that the birds have been listed to be extinct in the wild.

"I feel that there is a higher form of responsibility for us, the keepers, to maintain the highest standards of care for these two parrots."

Before their arrival, the Bird Park sent animal care staff to ACTP to learn about care of the birds, which have a life span of 20 to 30 years.

Since they arrived here, the macaws have been housed in an exhibit designed to resemble the dry scrubland of north-east Brazil, their native habitat.

They are also fed a diet of seeds, sprouts, cranberries, parrot pellets, as well as a fruit and vegetable "salad".

To monitor the birds' weight without stressing them out, the keepers trained the macaws to step onto the weighing scale using positive reinforcement.

Each time the birds display this desired behaviour, they are rewarded with treats such as sunflower seeds.

The Bird Park is a member of the Spix's Macaw Working Group for the recovery and conservation of this species in the wild.

Other members in this group include the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation, a branch of the Ministry of the Environment in Brazil; Al Wabra Wildlife Preservation-Lubara Breeding Centre; ACTP; Parrots International and Fazenda Cachoeira.

In 2016, a memorandum of understanding was inked by members of the group, with the Bird Park committing to provide support in establishing a breeding and release facility in Brazil, with the ultimate aim of re-introducing the species into the wild.

This re-introduction is targeted for 2021 and all the institutions are making a great effort to make this dream possible.

Asked if there is any urgency for the two macaws in Singapore to be part of a breeding programme, Dr Lee said: "There is already a well-established breeding programme across three institutions in the world. So these two birds at the Bird Park will play a better role as conservation ambassadors for their species."

She added: "We feel that the re-introduction of the species into the wild is more likely now than ever before because we have got all the right partners together to push this effort."

At the Bird Park exhibit, visitors can learn more about the Spix's Macaw Conservation Action Plan and Re-introduction Programme.

The Bird Park is the only zoological park in Asia where visitors can see the three remaining members of the blue macaw family - the Spix's macaw, Lear's macaw, and Hyacinth macaw - at one location.

The last member of the blue macaw family - the Glaucous macaw - has not been sighted since the 1960s and is believed to be extinct.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 17, 2018, with the headline 'Two rare macaws on show at Bird Park'. Print Edition | Subscribe